Fury as blood-soaked ritual opens in Spain

A million people attend the San Fermín festival in Spain to watch bullrunning and bullfighting. But is this a rich cultural heritage or a barbaric bloodsport?

A firecracker cracks high in the sky. The cobbled streets echo with the thunder of hooves. The first sharp horn rounds the corner. Dozens of young men wait nervously until the hot snorting breaths are almost upon them before turning to run, the bulls chasing, pounding through narrow alleys, men falling to sharp cries, racing to the bullring.

This traditional running of the bulls is how the San Fermín festival in Pamplona began this morning, and will occur every morning for a week, as it has done annually for over 300 years. The festival was made world famous by Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Each evening the bulls that ran that morning meet their ends in an elaborate dance, a display of skill and death-defying agility: a bullfight.

A traditional Spanish bullfight has three parts, performed by the matador and his cuadrillo (team). First, two picadores on horses stab the bull just behind the morrillo, the mound of muscle on its neck, to weaken the bull and make it bleed. Second, three banderilleros each plunge sharpened sticks into the bull's shoulders to further weaken it. It is only then that the matador uses his cape to distract the bull as it charges, performing set moves in a series of tandas (passes), finally killing it with a sword.

The tradition has its earliest depictions in wall paintings from 2000 BC and was formalised by the Moors in the 700s, finding its current form by 1726, the time of the great matador Francisco Romero.

The ritual is intricate, from the costumes to the weapons, the order of actions to the combinations of manoeuvres, and reflects hundreds of years of Spanish history.

Yet the practice is slammed by activists as one of the cruellest legal abuses of animal rights in the world, and one made more inhumane because it's done purely for entertainment. Its cultural importance is questionable when 76% of Spaniards have no interest in attending bullfights, and seats are filled with tourists. Particularly controversial is that this practice, which most European countries have banned, is subsidised by EU money.

Cruel but cultured

Critics say it is a barbarous practice. Whipped into an angry fury then stabbed multiple times, the bull continues to be taunted whilst bleeding heavily. Finally, dizzy and in agonising pain, the animal is slaughtered.

But it is also an integral part of Spanish cultural and historical heritage, and to lose it would be to lose a defining part of the Spanish identity. More practically, bullfighting brings much needed tourist dollars into an otherwise weak economy. Perhaps it is a choice, between bulls and people.

You Decide

  1. Would you watch a bullfight?
  2. 'At least in Spain the bull has its moment of glory. We slaughter over a million bulls a year in the UK in anonymous abattoirs.' Discuss.


  1. In groups of four, form a special committee of the Spanish Parliament discussing banning bullfighting, two for, two against. Prepare brief notes, then hold a debate.
  2. Research other examples of bloodsports worldwide, and decide whether you think they are more or less defensible that bullfighting and why.

Some People Say...

“Britain's 2.5 million live animal experiments each year are much crueller than killing a few Spanish bulls.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Are there blood sports in the UK?
Until 2004, fox hunting was legal in England and Wales. It involves riding on horseback, using a pack of hounds to hunt down and kill a fleeing fox.
Why would anyone want to do that?
It was a deeply rooted tradition of the English upper classes, but foxes are also pests which kill and injure farmer's livestock.
So what's the problem?
Well, like the bulls in Pamplona, these foxes were killed slowly (and unnecessarily so) all in the name of tradition. Fox hunts continue but foxes have been replaced by artificially laid scents.
So is there a similar solution for bullfighting?
Absolutely. Bloodless bullfighting has taken off in California, using harmless sticks with velcro on the end to mark where they touch.

Word Watch

Ernest Miller Hemingway, 20th century American novelist and Nobel Literature Prize winner was one of the greatest American writers of all time. He was also an aficionado (lover of bullfights).
a historical term which was used to describe Muslim North Africans.


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